Jacob Brace: The critical need for digital inclusion programs during a time of social distancing

The last three months have demonstrated how essential internet access and digital literacy are to our lives. From working and learning online to connecting with family, home internet is necessary to getting things done. But not everyone has the same access to the internet and the necessary skills to put it to use. Utah’s Wasatch Front is a highly connected area, yet even here, digital inclusion efforts are critical to helping our entire community connect to the opportunity of the internet.

Google Fiber has focused on digital inclusion since our beginnings here in Utah. In Provo and Salt Lake City, we’ve provided more than 30 Community Connections — a program by which we power public and nonprofit sites with free gigabit internet — to help people get online and access educational and professional opportunities in their own neighborhoods.

In many of these locations, Google Fiber has also partnered to provide devices and skills training, because digital inclusion means more than access to the internet and devices — it’s also about digital literacy. After all, if someone doesn’t have the know-how to make good use of the internet and technology, having the internet at home doesn’t help.

Google Fiber is proud to join a strong community of local nonprofits, libraries, schools and thoughtful businesses working on these issues. This year both Salt Lake City and Provo were named Digital Inclusion Trailblazers by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. These awards are a testament to not only our local municipal government’s vital efforts, but also the movement of Utah organizations leading the nation in their efforts to narrow the digital divide, utilizing digital inclusion as a universal guide.

To aid our communities in taking on this multifaceted challenge, we partnered with NTEN — a community of nonprofit professionals using technology to make the world better — and created the Digital Inclusion (DI) Fellowship program in 2015. The program builds capacity and leadership in local organizations by helping them launch or expand digital literacy programs. This month, NTEN launched applications for its sixth cohort of DI Fellows and there are two opportunities here, one in Salt Lake City and one in Provo.

The sixth cohort of fellows will be continuing an important tradition. Over the first five years of the program, Google Fiber sponsored 68 fellows across the country — and eight in Utah — who have driven meaningful work to address digital equity within their own communities and establish themselves as national digital inclusion leaders. NTEN Fellows are instrumental in local organizations, including Utah Communities Connect, the United Way of Utah County and the Salt Lake City Public Library.

Our most recent fellow, Krysti Nellermoe, a 2020 NTEN Fellow with the International Rescue Committee, developed new systems to expand digital services at every point of the refugee experience. In addition to offering job training and financial literacy programs, Krysti also established a tech mentor program for teen refugees.

Especially in the age of COVID-19, every organization — from schools and clinics to churches and nonprofits — needs a digital inclusion plan and dedicated resources to help underserved clients get online and support the building of their digital skills. The NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellowship is just one way Google Fiber is working to increase the reach and impact of these vital efforts.

Please consider applying to the Digital Inclusion Fellowship if your organization is wrestling with how to be more inclusive across digital platforms and media. (Applications close May 31.) We all need to work together to ensure more of Utah can be together online.

Jacob Brace

Jacob Brace is Utah government and community affairs manager for Google Fiber.